TAMPA — For 20 years, a tiny woman in a Rastafarian beret mesmerized local television audiences with a peculiar blend of French instruction, belly dancing and Barbie dolls.
Mariette Coulter started her cable-access show, French with Mariette, at age 63. Viewers may not have known exactly which time slot the biweekly show would occupy; whether she would mix her opposition to pesticides into the French lessons; sometimes with human or animal guests including her birds, snakes and rabbits.
They could, however, count on three things.
Ms. Coulter would conjugate French verbs — she taught only verbs, usually conjugated in the past perfect tense.
The camera would remain trained on her Barbie dolls, always dressed in blue and green because she felt those colors look good on television.
And she would invite audiences to sing along to Frère Jacques and all eight verses of Alouette, tapping out the melody on a Casio keyboard.
Ms. Coulter, who developed a cult following among Hillsborough viewers who knew her only as "that French lady," died Saturday, two days after being struck in a pedestrian accident, her family said. She was 87.
Ms. Coulter was also a vocal opponent of offshore drilling and the use of malathion to knock out the Mediterranean fruit fly, and an animal lover who collected caterpillars to protect them from lizards. She attended County Commission meetings with her toy poodle, Cinnamon, in tow, where she argued against trimming a 50-acre mangrove preserve in her South Tampa neighborhood.
With a persistence later honored by the Sierra Club, Ms. Coulter said the balance of nature should trump the views afforded waterfront residents.
"It was at a time when it took courage to come before the board," said former Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt. "People like her and (east Hillsborough environmental activist) Cam Oberting were really crusaders. We all owe them a debt."
Elizabeth Therese Mariette Garceau was born in 1926 in Milford, Mich., the daughter of two French-Canadians. She grew up in Manchester, N.H., speaking English and French, and could trace her ancestry to 15th century France.
After a stint with the Navy's WAVES program, she met her future husband, stock analyst Robert Coulter, at the University of Tampa. The marriage lasted 23 years.
In the early 1960s the family moved to Tampa, a block from the bay. After going back to school for a master's degree, Ms. Coulter taught French to gifted children at the University of South Florida.
In 1983 she volunteered as a camerawoman for a priest's show on local public access television at the University of Tampa. A monthlong trip to France in 1989 inspired French with Mariette that same year.
Ms. Coulter opened each show with snapshots from her trip to France, then switched to the Barbie dolls while conjugating verbs from a high school textbook published in 1931.
After taking belly dancing lessons, she sometimes performed with her pet ball python, Kah. But Ms. Coulter was also quite content to focus on the Barbie dolls for the half-hour, conjugating French verbs over music.
Her daughter, actor and writer Janet Stanley, worked in the 1990s on Ms. Coulter's technique, which she dubbed a kind of performance art. "I tried to get her to work on having a beginning, middle and end," said Stanley, 54. She sometimes had guests, brought in her pets or talked about threats to the environment.
"Her show does have a hypnotic quality to it," a poster named Carlos wrote on the tampaforums blog in 2005. "You're not actually learning French, you're just slowly forgetting all your problems."
Ms. Coulter lived in crowded two-bedroom apartment in Seminole Heights, on about $600 a month. Though she had stopped doing her show a few years ago, she was still going strong at 87, swimming 50 to 100 laps a day in an Olympic-size pool and taking classes at USF.
She had taken the bus home from a film history class Thursday evening. While attempting to cross an intersection, a car hit her at a low rate of speed, her daughter said.
Ms. Coulter died two days later at Tampa General Hospital.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.